Mark Wareham ACS on filming ‘Felony’

Mark Wareham ACS consistently creates images of the highest quality. Images that not only look terrific but follow the narrative terrain. He’s disciplined and professional in the mould of many of the Australian cinematographers working around the world. Wareham is happy working on local content from his home in Queensland, provided he’s working on quality projects.

Four episodes of McLeods Daughters (2001-2009), twelve episodes of Underbelly (2008-2014), three episodes of Cloudstreet (2011), four episodes The Straits (2012), nine episodes of Redfern Now (2012), Parer’s War (2014), Don’t Tell (2017), Jasper Jones (2017) and Mystery Road (2018) to name a few.

We spoke to Wareham in 2013 just prior to the opening of Joel Edgerton and Matthew Saville’s Felony, one of the last Australian films actually shot on film.

Interview by Dick Marks OAM.

Tom Wilkinson, Jai Courtney and Joel Edgerton in ‘Felony’ – DOP Mark Wareham ACS, PHOTO Mark Rogers

AC – Who or what has been the greatest influence on your career so far?

MW – Interesting question. When I was at university I was always really aware of films and filmmaking, but a film called The Conformist (1970, cinematography by Vittorio Storaro ASC AIC) affected me at another level, n particular the work of Storaro. I saw that it transcended straight functionality and provided something else, and that was storytelling combined with artistry.

AC – Can you talk about the time you spent doing long-form series work at Village Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast? You were working with quite a few other great Australian cinematographers like Ben Nott ACS and John Stokes ACS. Do you think that episodic television put you in a good place to shoot films?

MW – Definitely. What was really great about working at those studios, and I think you’d probably hear this from both Nott and Stokes as well, was that the Americans always expected significantly higher production values. A bit more like what we were delivering on television commercials at that time. Unlike the Australian producers who didn’t really see television as being anything that should be ‘value added’. Of course, that has changed now.

The Americans wanted to see more bang for their buck and within a shorter time frame. They also wanted their night shoots to look like they’d spent some real money, even if they hadn’t. I also got to work with a variety of directors, and operated for other cinematographers… fantastic cinematographers. I could watch what they did first-hand and that was a little reassuring, because often when you saw them do things you thought, well, that’s how I would have done it! It wasn’t magic. I suppose it demystified lots of things for me.

The other good thing was being able to walk into a big sound stage and a fresh set and start from scratch. There’s nothing nicer. The Americans also taught us a lot about pre-planning, pre-lighting and about having everything in place which gave us flexibility at the time of the shoot. I also learnt what to sweat and what not to sweat on.

Joel Edgerton plays Detective Toohey in ‘Felony’ – DOP Mark Wareham ACS, PHOTO Mark Rogers

AC – From my experience working with American producers I would say that once you please them, you’re on their list.

MW – Very true. They still respect cinematographers and they still respect what we do and bring to projects. But it was Stokes who was the pathfinder there; he was the one who broke through first, the one who opened the path and because he did such a great job, the producers turned around and said, “Well hang on, who else is there? If we can’t get John, who else is waiting in the wings?” It’s just a shame it didn’t keep going, because we got to shoot millions of feet of film, two cameras blasting away, five days a week for eight or nine months at a time.

One very interesting experience I had at the studios was when I was telephoned by one of the production managers. Can you come in and help an American cinematographer who is testing on a film? He just wants someone to give him a hand,” they asked me. What does he want, an operator?,” I asked. No, he just wants a hand,” they told me. Who is it?,” I asked. “Darius Khondji (AFC ASC),” came the reply. Sure,” I said. Okay, look, we can only pay you ‘x’ amount per day. Sorry it’s not much,” the production manager said to me. Look,” I said, “I’d do it for free.

Khondji was an incredibly, incredibly charming man, an incredibly talented man working at a very high-level. After seeing Delicatessen (1991) and Se7en (1995), I expected that he would do something special, something that no one else did, something magical that I would never had thought of. You know what it was? He push-processed the Fuji 500 one stop and kept rating it at 500 ISO. I think to increase contrast. His key fill-ratios were fairly standard, although for his night exteriors he got gaffer Reggie Garside to put up a soft box that wasn’t necessarily to light the set but created sheen in the shadows. Khondji shot 70,000ft to test spherical versus anamorphic, which he had fully-graded, then had it printed and projected it in a theatre. He didn’t like to evaluate his stock via the telecine.

AC – He trusted his film stock but only after he had seen it projected.

MW – Exactly.

Jai Courtney plays Detective Melic in a scene from ‘Felony’ – DOP Mark Wareham ACS, PHOTO Mark Rogers

AC – Whatever he does works. He’s a brilliant cinematographer. Have you ever wanted to ship out to the United States and work out of Los Angeles?

MW – A mate of mine (Stephen Windon ACS ASC) who’s over shooting Fast and Furious 7 at the moment said to me before he left, “What do you want to do next? Do you want to go to America and do films?” I told him I just wanted to keep doing the same work that I’d been doing over the last four or five years. I wanted to work with good directors and good producers on good projects; maybe I’m not that ambitious or something, but I like what I’m doing at the moment. If I had run off to America to chase my career, I wouldn’t have done projects like Redfern Now and Cloudstreet, which to me are personally, truly significant.

AC – How choosy are you with the jobs that you’re offered?

MW – I say no to a lot of work. I don’t always say no because I don’t like the script. One of the people who effects me the most is the line producer. If they contact me and say, “Mark, I’ve already hired these people on the crew,” or, “I’ve got a deal with so and so, can you blah, blah, blah…,” I just don’t do it. If they’re not flexible with who I can choose on my crew, if they’re not going to let me make my choices, then fortunately I’m in a position where I’m able to turn them down. There are usually other jobs or I know that one of the five directors I work with quite regularly will be doing something.

AC – Let’s talk about your latest film Felony.

MW – We finished the film at the end of 2012. Then it travelled to the Toronto Film Festival and did its thing. Shortly after Joel Edgerton (writer/producer) looked at it and decided he would like to do a pick-up. Because we shot Felony on film, we had to go and find a film camera to rent, buy some film stock and it was actually quite interesting to observe just how quickly it had all been forgotten. The stock had to be flown in from New Zealand. Three 400ft rolls! Assistant camera Matt toll felt some pressure loading and unloading the magazines. No room for error. Neglab ended up processing the film, but it was quite a surreal sort of day, shooting that pick-up. There were only half-a-dozen crew; director Matt Saville, myself and Toll, grip Dave Nicols, makeup and of course Edgerton. 

Tom Wilkinson plays Detective Summer in ‘Felony’ – DOP Mark Wareham ACS, PHOTO Mark Rogers

AC – thought you might have shot digital. Why did you chose film?

MW – Yes, 35mm. There are some interesting things in this. Originally Saville wanted to shoot Felony anamorphic in an Alexa. I said, “Why?,” and he said, “Because I’ve always wanted to shoot a film anamorphic.” His previous film had been Noise (2007), and he also directed Cloudstreet. I’ve worked with him a bit on various projects and he’s become a good friend. I said, “Great, well then let’s do it the old-fashioned way.” Then Rose Blight (producer) said to us, If you’re going to shoot anamorphic, don’t you think you should test film?” What? A producer actually saying test film?

I shot tests in the car park at Panavision, with an iPad as a fill light. Late afternoon, early evening, in that small timeframe when there’s still a tiny bit of detail in the sky. We liked the texture and the colour of the spherical film, plus it dropped away. With the Alexa, you could see right down the street into every corner. I felt that if I needed to see anything there I would put some light into it. Saville mostly shoots with one camera, so when they ran the numbers, Felony came out costing about the same. So we decided to shoot on film! We used Cooke S4s and I used Kodak stock.

AC – In the past we got used to the film look. I think judging light is one thing, but judging darkness is far more difficult. I watched the director’s cut of Blade Runner (1982, cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth ASC) recently; the depth, contrast and texture of the images was just beautiful.

MW – Masterful. Just masterful. The late John Bowring ACS said something at a SMPTE conference once. They had a panel of young cinematographers, and the question was asked, “What do you want out of digital cameras?” They all said ‘latitude. Bowring said, “Be really careful what you wish for.” I think we’ve wished for all of these things but we might have built a bit of a camel.

AC – True. So the decision was made to shoot Felony on film.

MW – The decision was made to shoot Felony on film. Which I think was really wise; and also, I suppose we wanted it to have a timelessness. Saville’s very wary of Australian daylight exteriors. He says they always look like Australia daylight exteriors, and I agree with him. We wanted to keep it quite beige and monochromatic. I went back to using the old 500ASA stock with an 81EF, because I wanted to get that 1970s ‘cop film’ look when mixed colour temperatures meant something.

During the day we used HMIs and at night we used tungsten lights. We didn’t use HMIs at night. It’s funny, I mentored a young guy from film school recently and I was lighting something and I said, “Oh, let’s go halfway and go 45 hundred, so we’ll have some daylight and mixed colour temp, and he said, “Why did you do that?” I’ve never seen that before.” And I said, “What do you mean… you’ve never seen mixed colour temperature?” Obviously he had not.

Felony was a 35 day shoot with mostly one camera and after I graded it, I went and saw the film at the Toronto Film Festival. Olivier Fontenay from EFilm did a really lovely job grading it, and it was funny because during the grade Matt kept wanting to make it darker, but Rosemary Blight (producer) who

is always massively supportive, was concerned and Olivier, who loves grading film by the way, got it to quite a good place and as usual did a superb job. But I did watch the trailer and I thought, man it’s contrasty. And I thought that wasn’t something we purposely put into it, it’s just the whole nature of the film stock.

Melissa George and Joel Edgerton in a scene from ‘Felony’ – DOP Mark Wareham ACS, PHOTO Mark Rogers

AC – What was your biggest challenges shooting this film?

MW – There were two things. One was making sure that the police station didn’t look too bland because it was lit with fluorescent lights. The other thing was the director didn’t want the film to look ‘over-stylised’ because his previous film Noise was very stylised. He said to me, “Do the night stuff well, but I don’t want to draw attention to it.

There was a lot of car logistics and car rigs. If we did a car shot, a bonnet rig that was looking down the side of the car, there was a lot of open frame on the side that we were driving away from. I would light from that side using a little LED battery panel, arm-down on a C-stand just on the edge of shot. It was lighting back on a complimentary angle so I wasn’t lighting too flat. It’s hard not to find a lot of car interiors over-lit. If look at a film like Drive (2011, cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel ASC), it had some fantastic looking car interiors. In that sense, I suppose that’s what we set out to do.

Felony is basically a story about a good guy who does something wrong by accident. It’s was great working with actors like Joel Edgerton, Tom Wilkinson, Jai Courtney… they’re all great. We made sure that we didn’t over-glamourise the film. Tom Wilkinson once said to me, “I just loved the way I could see the pores in his skin,” and I said, “Yeah, imagine what that would look like if we’d shot it digital!

Vittorio Storaro once said something that I like to quote. Discussing Dune (2002), the television series he filmed, someone asked him what he thought about shooting television. He said, “Well, look, televisions are getting bigger and cinema screens are getting smaller.” Now we’re watching content on anything from an iPhone to seventy-inch television, which is monstrous. I keep thinking back to what John Bowring said, that we’ve got to be careful what we wish for… there is a limit to sharpness, saturation, contrast etc.

AC – What are the main things you consider now, regarding films that end up on the big screen as well as television?

MW –  I think it comes back to controlling your contrast. It’s more important than ever. You simply cannot light to the viewfinder on an Alexa. I still use a light meter. On the last project I shot with Garry Phillips ACS, we both used light meters. I saw the trailer for it and it looked good. People on set say things like, “Oh, it looks like film.” I say, “No, it doesn’t. That’s not a film look, that’s just noise.” I don’t think the rules have changed that much. I think that when you push digital as far as some cinematographers do, it just looks weird.

You don’t see it when you go to the cinema, but you do see it on Blu-ray. When you start mucking around a lot with the grade, then watch the final product on Blu-ray, all of a sudden you’ll see all this blocky-ness in a corner, or where you pushed something really hard. A grade shouldn’t end up being about fixing things.

Going back to Storaro’s quote about televisions getting bigger, this goes for script as well. I’m a massive fan of series like The Bridge (2011-2018, cinematography by Carl Sundberg, et al) and House of Cards (2013-2018, cinematography by . David M. Dunlap, et al). Not only do they have great scripts and character complexity, but they look incredible. I am very fortunate to work with producers and directors who have a cinematic approach to television. For me, the collaboration with the director is the most important thing and in one-off television which includes miniseries, producers tend to support the director’s vision. This can’t always be said of long-running shows. There is a general and antiquated perception in Australia that good television directors are the ones who get the most coverage and finish the day on time.

Jai Courtney in Joel Edgerton ‘Felony’ – DOP Mark Wareham ACS, PHOTO Mark Rogers

AC – Blocking is what it’s all about, isn’t it? For lots of reasons.

MW – Absolutely. There is a scene in Felony where we blocked it and I lit it one way. When I looked at it I thought, “Oh, I wish I lit it another way.”It wasn’t very flattering on the actress, Melissa George. But the director loved it. I said, “I’m so glad you liked it. I really wanted to deconstruct her a bit, and make her feel a bit more real.

AC – Mark I think some of the greatest moments in cinema have been delivered by actors doing what I call their ‘Jack Nicholson thing’… hung-over, unshaven, disheveled and bleary eyed. That sometimes gives a cinematographer the green light, doesn’t it?

MW – Absolutely.

Mark Wareham ACS is one of Australia’s foremost cinematographers.

Dick Marks OAM is a former-editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.


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